Barring the Barcode

By Rich Handley

According to Retail Info Systems, the ubiquitous machine-readable identifier is finally fading into obsolescence as retailers embrace cutting-edge technologies like RFID.


Paradigm shifts take time, as evidenced by the gradual evolution of the barcode, a popular method of visually representing data in a machine-readable form. The concept for barcodes goes back to 1932, when Wallace Flint proposed the notion of automating the retail checkout process. The technological limitations at the time prevented his idea from coming to fruition for nearly two decades, though Flint would go on play a significant role in the development of the universal product code (UPC), which has long been printed on retail packaging to allow product identification.

The concept was revisited in 1948, when Bernard Silver and Norman Joseph Woodland, students at Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Technology, began exploring the feasibility of reading product data automatically at the point of checkout. The two came up with a workable concept inspired by Morse code, utilizing linear and bull’s eye printing patterns—after a false start, that is, since their first working system had utilized ultraviolet ink, which was costly and easily faded. Efforts to develop a system based on their patented prototype continued throughout the 1960s. The paradigm had not yet shifted, but it was starting to build momentum.

The technology became viable for commercial use by the early 1970s, following the efforts of IBM, Pitney-Bowes, RCA, National Cash Register and other companies to develop a system to print and read barcodes for supermarket use. Finally, in 1974—more than four decades after Flint proposed the idea—the first UPC scanner was installed at an Ohio supermarket, with Wrigley’s gum chosen as the inaugural product to sport a barcode. The rest is history, as retailers worldwide have since employed barcode-based systems, utilizing optimal markings with embedded machine- and camera-readable information, for the purpose of asset identification.

In the decades that followed, barcoding technologies became ubiquitous in the retail, grocery, healthcare, airline, sports, manufacturing and postal-service sectors, among many others. But in recent years, alternative technologies, particularly radio frequency identification, have been slowly pushing barcodes to the curb. In an article published by Retail Info Systems, Bob Proctor,  Link Labs‘ CEO, outlined why the retail sector has been moving away from such coding (see  4 Reasons Retailers Are Ditching Barcodes). He makes a convincing argument.

According to Proctor, it comes down to four factors: the human tendency to make errors, the limitations of image-recognition technologies, the arrival of new innovations, and the clear advantages RFID offers in terms of real-time, shelf-level inventory management. “Where barcodes fall short,” Proctor writes, “other technologies like RFID, image recognition and Amazon’s Just Walk Out, a combination of computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning technologies that allows shoppers to walk out of a store with their goods without waiting in lines, going to a cashier or interacting with store employees, are picking up the slack.”

Real-time knowledge of which goods are in stock and where they are located can help retailers decrease their costs and boost their operational efficiencies, as the speakers at our annual  RFID Journal LIVE! conferences discuss year after year. With streamlined inventory-management processes in place, companies gain better insight into consumer behaviors and preferences, which in turn can help to greatly improve the bottom line. Barcodes are certainly very useful, or else they wouldn’t have remained a staple for as long as they have, but they simply cannot do what RFID can do.

The industry-wide switch to RFID was inevitable. It wasn’t overnight, though. The technology has existed since 1945, when Léon Theremin invented a listening device that retransmitted radio waves with audio data added in—yet it would be half a century before most people had any idea what radio frequency identification was, and it’s taken another few decades for RFID to become as mainstream as it is today. Like I said, paradigm shifts take time. But when they do, big things can happen.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of RFID Journal since 2005. Outside the RFID world, Rich has authored, edited or contributed to numerous books about pop culture.